What is the difference between sex, gender, and sexuality?
I teach an entire course on this, so this is oversimplified, but generally speaking: sex refers to biological differences (usually female and male); gender refers to culturally learned differences that may or may not correspond to biological categories (i.e., masculine, feminine); and sexuality refers to expressions and experiences of attraction and desire. Although we frequently collapse these together, and assume they are naturally connected, they are actually distinct phenomena. Although they may be connected, the way in which they are understood to relate to one another varies across cultures. We also tend to assume that the categories are rigid and that there are only two options in each category, rather than a continuum. Part of this is because our language organizes these as binaries (female/male, feminine/masculine, homo/hetero, etc.), so it becomes difficult to think and talk in other terms. When we look cross-culturally, it is a little easier to see all of this, and it helps us to disentangle these assumptions.
How do we define identity? How can identity change or alter during college?
“Identity” means different things in different scholarly disciplines (i.e., mathematics, psychology). Within anthropology, the concept of identity usually refers to our sense of belonging to a social group which contributes meaningfully to our sense of self. This can include many levels of experience, depending on the context: cultural identity, ethnic identity, sexual identity, regional identity, national identity, etc. In mainstream US society, the assumption is that identity is fixed, something we are either born with or acquire at a very young age, and it is given an almost biological weight, as if it were encoded in our genetics. However, our sense of self and our place in the world changes over the course of our lifetimes. Therefore, our expressions of our identities (in the plural), also change. Although this can happen at any point in one’s life, it is common in college for one’s sense of self to change because it is a time of great learning, a time when students break from their past social world. As students meet new people and encounter new ideas, their worldview is altered, along with their place in it.
How do members of the OU community with different nationalities, religious beliefs, and cultural backgrounds approach gender? How do they approach gender identity?
There is no single answer to this question. Gender is made up of symbols, roles and behaviors that get expressed in different combinations (what I like to call “constellations”) depending on background and context. Some cultural groups have very rigid and limited expectations of gender expression, while others are much more plural or fluid in their understandings of gender. When people encounter others who are different from themselves, if they are not hostile (and even sometimes if they are), they inevitably learn something from the people they meet. The OU community is legitimately multicultural, with members from all over the world, with many different beliefs, and from a wide array of cultural backgrounds. All of us are transformed by our connections to people who are different from ourselves, and this applies to students from other countries as much as to students who have never left the state. By “transformed” I mean opening up of our minds to other ways of seeing and being in the world.
Why is it important to have classes on gender and identity?
Gender is one of those social experiences that many people take for granted. Gender is not some detail that we add on, but a set of social phenomena that infuses nearly every aspect of our lives. Taking classes about gender and identity helps students develop critical thinking, and often gives them the analytic skills that benefit them in their daily lives, and life after college. More than any other class, I hear back from students who have taken my gender class, sometimes years later, because they read or saw or experienced something that reminded them of the class.
What do you think OU faculty members can do to support or assist students struggling with gender or gender identity issues?
I think it is important to remember that as faculty we are not therapists. Our role is not to counsel, though it is important to listen when students need to talk, and if they need help then to direct them to the appropriate resources. It is also important not to pry, as students are entitled to their privacy, and may choose to confide in some faculty members, but not others. Let the students take the lead in these conversations.
I strongly encourage faculty to take the Faculty Ally training, coordinated through the Gender + Equality Center. Taking the training does not mean that one automatically becomes an LGBTQ+ Ally; it is an opportunity to learn more about the issues our students may be dealing with, what kind of resources are available for students (and others), and strategies for creating an inclusive classroom and curriculum. Seemingly small things, like being attentive to the students’ pronoun preferences and use of social (rather than legal) names, are important to supporting students who are transitioning or have already transitioned, so that students are not outed in class, but can choose when, where, and whether to share personal information.
What resources on campus would you recommend for students who are seeking more information about gender and gender identity?
The Gender + Equality Center in the OMU is a clearinghouse for information and resources. Students who are struggling, feeling confused, or need support while they work through issues, including gender and gender identity, can find support at the Goddard University Counseling Center.
How could OU improve on this aspect?
While LGBTQ+ students have seen improvements in their experiences in recent years because of initiatives like the Ally program, there is no equivalent program or set of resources for LGBTQ+ faculty, which affects hiring, retention, productivity, and wellbeing. Additionally, we need more gender-neutral bathrooms (not just a commitment to include them in new buildings) so that transgender members of OU’s community can pee in peace and don’t have to plan their schedules around when they will have access to a safe restroom.
In terms of gender equity, OU could improve in hiring and promoting more women to positions of leadership, especially in upper administration. Additionally, there needs to be greater effort to hire female faculty in some fields. Representation in faculty and leadership is important for students to see the campus and their chosen field as welcoming and encouraging.
Another aspect in which OU could improve in its recognition and support of gender diversity includes deepening our commitment to students with jobs and families to support, which means we need clearer policies related to taking leave to care for sick family members, birth, adoption, and care for infants and young children. We also need more (and better advertised) breastfeeding rooms dispersed across campus. At present, there is one “lactation” room, in Carnegie Hall, Room 306. OU only recently adopted a “family leave” policy for faculty, which is already out of date in relation to what is happening across the country and in the developed world. This is critical for gender equity and for supporting a healthy work/life balance.
Of course, I cannot end without mentioning the continued problems of gender-based violence. We need both a more robust educational program, and a greater commitment from the administration to address in substantive ways the gender-based violence that is endemic in our society at large and in some of our campus institutions.
Do you have any additional anecdotes, information, or advice to share?
We can all contribute to creating a safer, more inclusive campus, even those who do not feel comfortable with these issues. You do not need to understand other people’s experiences to support their rights to be safe and treated fairly. If we inform ourselves, we can help protect the most vulnerable members of our community and create an environment that supports everyone.